Patrick B. McGuigan
On the morning of September 11, 2001, as Oklahoma City education reform leaders active on the KIDS (Keep Improving District Schools) Project met with the City Council, an aide handed Mayor Kirk Humpreys a note.
After reading it, the mayor announced there were news reports a small private plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center Towers in New York City. Before long, he made a second announcement: Another plane had hit the other tower.
Soon we learned these were commercial airliners, not small planes.
The council quickly adjourned. We made hurried goodbyes and I headed to work at The Oklahoman, where I ran the editorial page.
At the office, after the 10-minute drive from downtown, I touched base with J.E. McReynolds,
chief editorial writer. He would write our institution’s response, expressing the solidarity Oklahomans felt for New York’s first responders, men and women who had flown to the heartland after the Murrah Building bombing in 1995.
I kept a luncheon date with my wife Pam and Denise Bode, a state Corporation Commissioner.
Pam had spent the morning working at home. She heard about the attacks from me. Denise’s husband John worked in Washington, and she had not yet heard from him.
During lunch, Denise’s cell phone rang. John was fine, nowhere near the Pentagon when one of the hijacked planes slammed into its side.
I encouraged Pam to get her car filled with gas. She did so and witnessed the onset of panic buying. The nation’s airports were closed and gasoline supplies began to constrict. She said that despite their worries, people she encountered in her day were calm, respectful and concerned.
In the afternoon, I checked the final draft of J.E.’s editorial. It was stellar.
Like millions of others, I viewed with horror replays of the Towers coming down. Pam later told me other mothers were worried about turning on televisions with children in the room, as the images replayed. Some youngsters believed it was happening over and over again.
At The Oklahoman, I looked for an item to anchor the next day’s editorial page. The first commentary to arrive echoed what I sensed was needed.
In an otherwise passionate piece, syndicated columnist George Will wrote, sensibly, “The complexities of urban industrial societies make them inherently vulnerable to well-targeted attacks that disrupt the flows and interconnectedness of such societies. The new dependence on information technologies multiplies the vulnerabilities.”
He urged a calm and steady response in the wake of the day’s terrible reminder that we live in “a still-dangerous world.”
During that afternoon, my son Josef called to say that state Commerce Secretary Russell Perry, also editor of The Black Chronicle in northeast Oklahoma City, had called to cancel a speech that night before a student chapter of accounting students at Oklahoma State University.
A member of Gov. Frank Keating’s emergency team, Perry had been called into a series of meetings and would not be able to address the group.
As it was my son’s chapter, Russell suggested I take his place. I agreed to do so.
With things on track for the editorial page, I drove to Stillwater to meet with students. The students and I talked about the business world, even as they asked about the evil that men do in this world. I conveyed then, and still believe, the best way to honor those who had died was to keep living, in freedom.
One who died on American Airlines Flight 77, the plane that slammed into the Pentagon, was Barbara Olson.
I first knew her as Barbara Kay Bracher, from Federalist Society gatherings in Washington and around the nation in the 1980s.
In those years – all of the Reagan presidency and the first one-half of George H.W. Bush’s term as chief executive — we bonded in the arena of legal policy “combat,” to the point that we began to seek one another out at receptions or dinners, catching up in the midst of separate, busy lives.
After all those times of talking through judicial controversies and Justice Department scuttlebutt, our relationship slowly transitioned into an abiding friendship. One day, at a Federalist encounter, she grabbed me when I reached out to shake her hand, pulling me into a warm embrace. As she drew near, her hair gave off a lovely, distinctive aroma.
(When I shared this story three years ago with students at a local Catholic school where I taught, one of the girls asked: “What did it smell like?” I told her “strawberries,” a detail I had kept to myself until that moment. And then I cried. So did the students.)
Barbara went onto great success in television and as a writer; I returned to my home state, Oklahoma, for a career in journalism, and later in teaching. When we saw each other over the years, it was always the same: A long hug and her kind, endearing words. (And then, one of the last times I saw her, came the surprise – a kiss.)
At my newspaper desk that fateful day two decades ago, I read in a wire story that Barbara was a passenger on one of the four planes hijacked and converted into weapons to inflict terror on America.
She and everyone else on American Airlines Flight 77 died when it crashed into the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C.
In that moment, after the day of seeing photographs of the destruction in New York City, I was filled with emotion. Alone, I closed my eyes as tears came. My head low as I sat at my desk, I reached in memory for every moment I had spent in those cherished conversations. Eyes closed, I sent a petition to Heaven for Barbara, for all who had died and for our stunned nation.
Suddenly, I was enveloped. I could smell her blonde hair – strawberries, fresh.
In the mind’s eye, I saw Barbara’s face. Her eyes and blonde hair. Her smile. I could feel again the warm embrace of our special, tender friendship.
In a matter of seconds, the smell of her hair was gone. And I missed her so.
Each time I recall those moments, I am filled with both sadness and awe at the clarity of the experience. When I told the story to an editor during my Watchdog.org years, he was shaken for a moment. And then he commented: “You were touched by an angel.”
Describing those moments to my wife and friends in the time after – and in discussions with students in recent years – I related how real it was.
There is no way to explain what happened other than to describe it.
It is not rationale as we normally use that word, but it was real.
I know it was a gift, in the midst of an awful day.
NOTE: This is revised and expanded from McGuigan’s essay which first appeared on the CapitolBeatOK news website on September 11, 2012. It has also appeared at Watchdog.org (an arm of the Franklin Center), for which McGuigan once worked.